SONOMA -- An open-wheel race car has room for only one person: the driver. But when Charlie Kimball is in the cockpit, he brings the diabetes community along for the ride.
Three weeks ago, Kimball, the only driver in a major racing series with Type 1 diabetes, brought that community to a special place -- the winner's circle of an Izod IndyCar Series race.
At the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Kimball scored the first victory of his IndyCar career. And as big as that triumph was for Kimball, it was equally meaningful for the many people with diabetes whom he inspires.
"I was blown away by the amount of support and outreach," Kimball said. "I know there are many people out there with diabetes, and I have met so many, but it still caught me by surprise how impressive and how significant the response was. It meant so much to me to hear from them."
Kimball, 28, comes to Sonoma Raceway for this weekend's GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma coming off that impressive drive at Mid-Ohio, where he made an aggressive strategy pay off. Instead of driving a little more slowly to get better mileage and save fuel -- which would have resulted in one fewer pit stop -- Kimball put the hammer down and overcame the time spent on that extra pit stop. He won going away after making a gutsy pass of Simon Pagenaud late in the race.
Kimball is enjoying a breakthrough season. In his third year driving for Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing, Kimball is tied for seventh in the standings, thanks to impressive drives at Barber Motorsports Park (fourth place), Pocono Raceway (second) and Mid-Ohio (first).
"What he did at Mid-Ohio, even the champions from the past have complemented him," team manager Tom Wurtz said. "The car was good, but he had to drive the wheels off that thing -- and he did."
It was no surprise that Kimball chose a racing career. His father, Gordon, is a Stanford-educated engineer who designed and engineered cars in Formula One and the old CART series. It was while Gordon was working in England for the McLaren F-1 team that Charlie was born. The family moved to Camarillo in Southern California when Charlie was 8.
Kimball began kart racing as a youth and displayed the talent that would advance him through the ranks. By the time he graduated from high school, Kimball had a choice to make. He had already been accepted to Stanford, where he would have studied mechanical engineering with an eye on car design. But instead of designing cars, Kimball wanted to race them.
He went off to Europe in 2004, winning twice and finishing fourth overall in Formula Ford. That led to a 2005 season in British Formula 3, where Kimball won five races and was second in the championship. In 2006, Kimball moved to the F3 Euroseries. In a race at Zandvoort, the Netherlands, Kimball became the first American to win in that series, beating a guy named Sebastian Vettel -- who happens to be the three-time reigning F-1 world champion.
But in 2007, at age 22 and midway through the season in the World Series by Renault, Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He said his initial reaction was, "OK, now what?"
But Kimball said it didn't take long for his focus to turn to, "How do we get back in a car? How do I get healthy? How do I get strong? How do I figure this out?"
Kimball came back in 2008 in the Formula 3 Euroseries and finished second in his return race. By 2009, he was back in the United States racing in Firestone Indy Lights. He was 10th in 2009 and fourth in 2010, earning a promotion to IndyCar with Ganassi's second team.
By the time Kimball arrived in IndyCar, he had his diabetes management program down to a science.
"I think I'm a better athlete because of my diabetes management," he said, "because of what I've learned about nutrition, what I've learned about how my body, as an athlete, works. I do think I'm better for it rather than despite it."
In the car, Kimball's on-board drink system carries orange juice, not water. His blood-sugar level is monitored electronically, with the information displayed on his steering wheel "dashboard." If he needs an insulin injection during a pit stop, a crew member will use a device created by his sponsor, a NovoLog FlexPen, to administer the shot in his thigh right through his firesuit.
To this point, Kimball has not had to receive an injection during a race.
"That comes down the preparation I do before I get in the car," he said. "Nutrition, hydration, all of that prep means that when I get in the car, I am where I need to be."
Kimball has embraced being a role model for those with diabetes, proving that obstacles can be overcome. He realizes that representing them is as important as winning races.
"It gives me a little perspective on racing," Kimball said. "If we have a not-great weekend, like we had here last year (finishing 21st) with mechanical problems, or we have a really good weekend like we did at Mid-Ohio, I know for that community the fact that I'm out there racing is a victory."
Contact Darryl Matsuda at 408-920-5215. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DarrylMatsuda.
Saturday: Qualifying at 2:30 p.m., tape delay at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
Sunday: Race (85 laps) at 1:40 p.m., 1 p.m. on NBC Sports Network